Alien Nation

13. November, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #110: The Internationalist, Just Theater, November 6.

Alexandra Creighton and Nick Sholley in The Internationalist. Photo by Jay Yamada.

By Sam Hurwitt

“People are always more appealing when they’re unintelligible.” That’s what Sara says to Lowell in Anne Washburn’s play The Internationalist. It’s a pithy quote, but the play doesn’t necessarily prove it true.

Lowell is an American businessman just arrived in an unnamed Eastern European country to help out in some way with the local office (we’re not told what kind of business it is), and Sara is a native colleague who’s come to pick him up at the airport.  At first he mistakes her for a limo driver, and she thinks he’s mistaken her for a prostitute, but they’re soon having a friendly drink at a bar, where she convinces him to try one of the local liquors. The first sip is horrible, and he practically gags, but after that, strangely, it’s wonderful.  “You have to suffer first,” she tells him. “It’s a philosophic beverage.”

New York-based Washburn is a Berkeley native, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Just Theater introduced the Bay Area to her work with artistic director Jonathan Spector’s superb 2007 production of Washburn’s I Have Loved Strangers. Unlike the philosophic beverage, that first taste was delicious, and now Spector and Just Theater provides a second sip with their West Coast premiere of The Internationalist at Ashby Stage.

Jenn Scheller’s set depicts a sterile office with very modern-looking matching desks, and white and gray walls with red rectangular patterns on them. Nick Sholley’s Lowell has a pleasant, befuddled sort of charm, although the better we get to know him the more we realize he’s kind of a schmuck. Alexandra Creighton’s Sara is tremendously compelling—playful and flirtatious but also clearly much smarter than he is, obviously holding a lot back that she doesn’t care to say.

Fortunately for Lowell, almost everyone in this fictional country speaks excellent English, because he can’t understand a word of the local language.  Nor can we, because it’s a made-up language and there are no subtitles. There are whole scenes and long speeches in the gibberish that Washburn invented for this play, which bears no resemblance to any existing Eastern European language, Slavic or otherwise. (I say this as someone who’s spent a good deal of time in Eastern and Central Europe.) The cast speaks without accents, both in English and in whateverese—with the exception of one colleague, Paul, who has an English accent because his tutor was British. When the natives are alone together we hear them in English, but as soon as Lowell enters the room they become unintelligible, and not noticeably more appealing because of it.

They are an appealing bunch, though. Harold Pierce’s amusingly smarmy and abrasive Nicole has long, fake-chummy conversations with clients on the phone that he frequently interrupts by pretending that a call is coming in, when in fact he’s just taking a quiet moment to rest. Lauren Bloom’s Irene is brisk and businesslike, and Kalli Jonsson’s James is hapless and childlike, his English particularly fractured. Michael Barrett Austin does double duty as two coworkers who only breeze through the office every now and then: the bright and sardonic Paul and as manager Simon, whom the others are convinced sleeps in his office. Most of the office workers also appear as random people Lowell meets around town, most notably Jonsson as a hilariously creepy befezzed bartender with a smile like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The play is as much about Sara as it is Lowell, but we don’t know her as well. When it comes down to it, we don’t know him very well either, but because we speak the same language we’re less aware of what we don’t know about him, whereas Sara remains a mystery because of questions he never asks and things she tells him that we can’t understand. She spends a fair amount of time onstage by herself between scenes, doing office busywork, and Creighton gives just enough of a taste of her quiet, resigned discontent to hint at the inner depths we’ll never know.

Whatever it is that Lowell’s supposed to be doing there, nobody particularly seems to need his help, and they’re far from fascinated by American culture. They seem to know all they care to about it, and find it wanting. Washburn’s dialogue is terribly clever, and Spector and the cast handle it beautifully, but as the play goes on we, like Lowell, have to wonder what it’s all about beyond the marvelous wordplay.

As a story it isn’t terribly satisfying—it just trails off after a while—but in a way that’s appropriate to the subject matter. Lowell arrives thinking that he’s been sent here for a purpose, only to find that he has no idea what’s going on and whatever it is doesn’t concern him. Everybody’s very nice to him, but they don’t have much use for him. For better or for worse, we came in with Lowell and are linguistically allied with him, so we’re in much the same boat. We’ll never really know what’s going on here, and at a certain point the play just wanders off and leaves us hanging, like a native who’s tired of pandering to a foreigner who’s never going to get it anyway. In that sense, it captures the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land awfully well.

The Internationalist runs through November 20 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment